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Russia, Iran, Judo Diplomacy, and Ballistic Missile Defense

12:35 PM, Dec 27, 2013 • By JONATHAN BERGNER
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Russia has become the world's leading practitioner of judo diplomacy. In its simplest terms, the discipline of judo teaches its adherents to use an opponent's movement to unbalance him and throw him to the ground. Unbalanced opponent. Takedown. Victory.

Vladimir Putin, Russia

Consider the recent situation in Syria.  With the U.S. diplomatically unbalanced because of fuzzy red-lines and "unbelievably small" military strikes in need of unlikely congressional approval, Putin stepped in and brokered a chemical weapons agreement, simultaneously catapulting Russia back into relevance and undermining the U.S. position in the Middle East.

In a pattern that should now be recognizable, Russian leaders are seeking again to use diplomatic judo to achieve their strategic objective of limiting the U.S. ballistic missile defense initiative in Eastern Europe.  We should not let them.

The U.S. plans to protect its assets, personnel, and allies in Europe using the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)—a system utilizing the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system and including two land-based interceptor sites in Romania and Poland, each to be equipped with 24 variants of Standard Missile-3 interceptors when they are fully deployed (in 2015 and 2018, respectively).  It is these land-based sites to which Russia has long objected, and it has unsuccessfully sought official guarantees that any European missile defense shield not be used to target its strategic missile forces.  For their part, the U.S. and NATO have always maintained that the EPAA shield is designed to deal with the threat posed by short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles from rogue regimes such as Iran.

Considering Russian objectives and tactics, it was not altogether surprising that with the ink barely dry on the interim nuclear agreement with Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wasted no time opining about the future of U.S. BMD sites in Europe: “If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply.”  In other words, the U.S. did such a good job neutralizing the potential threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, European BMD is no longer necessary.  With all due respect to Mr. Lavrov, this analysis misses the mark.

First, and most importantly, Iran maintains a robust and active ballistic missile program focused on modernizing its missile force by increasing range and improving accuracy.  Iran already possesses a multitude of short and medium range missiles, and its moderate success in producing multi-stage space launch vehicles suggests that Iran is conceptually moving closer to having an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capability.  Even if the ayatollahs were to decide never to build a nuclear weapon, these types of missiles are capable of carrying conventional, chemical, or biological warheads.  Iran foregoing nuclear weapons does not obviate the need for a missile defense shield. 

Second, it is far from clear that the interim nuclear agreement will lead to a final nuclear agreement, or that a final agreement will guarantee that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.  It seems likely that Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich uranium under any final agreement the Obama administration would broker, leaving Tehran with a nuclear weapons breakout capability.  There is also legitimate concern that under any deal, Iran will continue to pursue weapons in secret. The value of a BMD shield is that we do not have to resolve such questions in advance for a shield to benefit U.S. security.

Finally, in addition to preparing a workable defense against Iran’s growing ballistic missile and potential nuclear capability, advancing the EPAA would have real and positive impacts now.  It would signal both U.S. resolve and capability to enemies as well as allies and would add a complication to Tehran’s ongoing nuclear weapons decision-making calculus.  BMD introduces uncertainty about the success of any potential attack and thereby reduces both its likelihood and the efficacy of threats.  U.S. systems do not need to be infallible; their existence is enough to alter a country's cost/benefit analysis in threatening to use ballistic missiles, or even in developing these weapons in the first place.  

The U.S. should stay the course and fully fund the planned first three phases of EPAA deployment. Overblown rhetoric from Moscow notwithstanding, the highly capable family of SM-3s to be deployed (including the Block IA, IB, and IIA) is simply not capable of achieving the necessary burnout velocity to intercept Russian ICBMs when fired from their proposed sites in Romania and Poland.

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